District to offer virtual academy for virus-wary kids

Face masks likely will be a regular part of students’ lives when Darlington County schools reopen, but the county school district is offering a “virtual academy” for students – and parents – who would rather avoid any COVID-19 risks and learn from home full-time.

District officials have made no final decisions on whether, when and how the county’s 25 schools will reopen this fall. But in a video chat with parents July 8, county Education Superintendent Tim Newman said the district will offer students the choice of enrolling in a district-operated “virtual academy” for the entire school year.

More detailed information will be sent to parents and students sometime later, Newman said. But he said the “virtual academy” will consist of regular classes run by district teachers – essentially a continuation of the online classes the district has been using since Gov. Henry McMaster shut down all S.C. public schools in March when COVID-19 first slammed the state.

Newman cautioned that students and parents must not make the “virtual academy” decision lightly, since students will be committed to following that course for the year unless things change – for example, unless more space opens up in actual, physical classes.

District officials must soon make very tough decisions about how to handle any school reopenings next month. State health officials have placed Darlington County in the “medium” or “moderate” category for COVID-19 risks, which gives the school district some leeway. For example, it’s likely that the state would permit “limited” school reopenings, in which students might split their time between in-person classes and online learning from home.

Newman said he has been holding extensive meetings with principals, staff members and school board members about how the district could, and should, handle school reopenings.

One of the few things that seem fairly certain right now, Newman said, is that face masks are going to be part of the mix. He cited the growing number of local governments that are mandating mask use for people in public places and growing evidence that masks help cut the virus’ spread. But he acknowledged that masks and “social distancing” are going to be tough to enforce with very young children.

As far as the district’s overall strategy for reopening, Newman said, “We have not come out (yet) and said specifically what we’re doing. … Very few people have. … Everything changes by the day, by the week.”

“From my perspective today,” Newman said, “ … I want to see our kids back in school, if at all possible, in a safe manner. That’s what I’m exploring.”

Hundreds of parents posted comments on Newman’s video chat. Some of their remarks:

“My kids WILL NOT be going back, so I hope e-learning is available again. … One kid gets (COVID-19), it’s gonna spread like wildfire.”

“This disease is not like the flu! Kids can die from this!!!”

“My kids wear masks if they have to go out to the grocery store … but we aren’t in the grocery store for 7-8 hours.”

“Just do it virtually until this mess is gone.”

Author: Rachel Howell

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